Bringing John Lennon and Elton John together, and other rock tales from "The Tastemaker" Tony King

Tony King's masterclass memoir offers a whirlwind tour from nascent rock 'n' roll in the 1950s through the present

By Kenneth Womack

Contributing Writer

Published February 11, 2023 12:59PM (EST)

Tony King With John and Elton, on their way to Boston, 1974 (Photo from the author’s collection)
Tony King With John and Elton, on their way to Boston, 1974 (Photo from the author’s collection)

Today's professionals would do well by themselves to take a glance back at the 1960s and 1970s, a period in which the music industry experienced unprecedented change. Relative outsiders in the unlikely forms of Elvis Presley and the Beatles upset and ultimately redefined the seemingly iron-clad business models that preceded them.

We live in an age of extraordinary change, an era in which entire industries have been born, while others have been scuttled aside, victims of our rapidly shifting technologies. New jobs exist that we never could have imagined, with countless other employment opportunities on the horizon.

Former music executive Tony King's enthralling new memoir "The Tastemaker" could serve as the textbook for a masterclass on responding to change's unceasing onslaught and the challenges and prospects that it presents. Subtitled "My Life with the Legends and Geniuses of Rock Music," King's book offers a whirlwind tour from nascent rock 'n' roll in the 1950s through the present. As with the one-time head of A&R for Apple Records himself, the book proves to be endlessly interesting, a heartwarming, often moving story about the soundtracks of our lives.

Readers will especially enjoy King's tales about promoting the industry's superstars, including the likes of John Lennon, Elton John, the Rolling Stones and Queen, among others. Beatles fans will relish the opportunity to experience King's insider's view of Lennon's Thanksgiving 1974 performance with John at Madison Square Garden. Save for an April 1975 TV special in honor of Sir Lew Grade, it would mark the last time the Beatle played a live show.

But getting there was no easy feat. As King shared with me during a recent interview, Lennon and John's collaboration began earlier that summer in New York City when King and John visited Lennon in his hotel suite at the Pierre. In short order, Lennon invited the Rocket Man to sing a vocal duet on "Whatever Gets You Thru the Night," which became the lead single from the "Walls and Bridges" LP.

Later that summer, as King prepared Lennon's new album for the pop music marketplace, he proposed the concept of a Thanksgiving gig to the former Beatle. "So he says to me," King recalled, "'I'll tell you what, if the record gets to number one, I'll do it.' Of course, he was never thinking it was going to get to number one." Propelled by a deft marketing campaign — and aided, no doubt, by Elton's superstardom during that era — "Whatever Gets You Thru the Night" topped the U.S. charts.

Love the Beatles? Listen to Ken's podcast "Everything Fab Four."

Having made his promise, Lennon got over a severe case of stage fright and performed with Elton at Madison Square Garden, rounding out a sizzling set with a rendition of the Beatles' "I Saw Her Standing There," which Lennon famously introduced by saying, "I'd like to thank Elton and the boys for having me on tonight. We tried to think of a number to finish off with so I could get out of here and be sick, and we thought we'd do a number by an old estranged fiancé of mine called Paul. This is one I never sang. It's an old Beatle number, and we just about know it."

The result made for an epochal rock moment, rendered especially poignant by Lennon's senseless murder in December 1980. King will never forget the heartbreak of Lennon's loss, as well as his friendship with the Beatle. "On the day before John was tragically shot," says King, "he did an interview with the BBC. He was asked how he knew Elton John. 'We have a mutual friend, Tony King,' John explained. I can't explain how much those words have meant to me since then. The fact that he described me as a friend, the day before his death, means everything."

As "The Tastemaker" so powerfully demonstrates, King left an indelible imprint upon a slew of rock music's greatest stars. In turn, their trust in his marketing instincts made for extraordinary collaborations that unleashed their hits upon the world in fine style.

By Kenneth Womack

Kenneth Womack is the author of a two-volume biography of the life and work of Beatles producer George Martin and the host of "Everything Fab Four," a podcast about the Beatles distributed by Salon. He is also the author of "Solid State: The Story of Abbey Road and the End of the Beatles," published in 2019 in celebration of the album’s 50th anniversary, "John Lennon, 1980: The Last Days in the Life" and the authorized biography "Living the Beatles Legend: The Untold Story of Mal Evans" (November 2023).  Womack is Professor of English and Popular Music at Monmouth University.

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